Britain said on Friday that a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa was of huge concern and was considered by scientists to be the most significant one yet found as it could make vaccines less effective.
The UK Health Security Agency said that the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on.
The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, and Britain has banned flights from South Africa and five neighbouring countries.
“There are no detected cases of this variant in the UK at this time. But this new variant is of huge international concern,” Javid told lawmakers.
He said the first sequence of the variant was uploaded by Hong Kong from the case of a traveller from South Africa.
“The UK was the first country to identify the potential threat of this new variant and to alert international partners. Further cases have been identified in South Africa and in Botswana, and it is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries.”
Javid paid tribute to South African scientists for their openness and transparency. South Africa has said that Britain’s decision to halt flights from the country seemed rushed.
Javid emphasised that there was much that was not yet known about the variant, but early indications suggested it might render vaccines less effective and be more transmissible, and he was concerned about a surge in cases in South Africa.
“While we don’t know yet definitively whether the exponential growth in South Africa is directly associated with this new variant… one of the lessons of this pandemic has been the we must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” Javid said.
Earlier, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended a ban on flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.
“As scientists have described, (this is) the most significant variant they’ve encountered to date in their research,” Shapps told Sky News